American Monuments

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NARRATOR:  Hey bud. Just wanted to hear your voice. I am getting sick of paying your phonebill though. I’ve been sitting here, not much going on. Wanted to talk at you for a minute. 

You probably don’t remember your grandad. It’s not a common thing, being a successful painter. You’ve heard me tell anyone that would listen that I grew up poor, which isn’t true. I’m sure you figured that out. Or your mother told you. 

I’ve made you look at his work a couple of thousand times, I’m sure. And I’m sure you were nice enough not to roll your eyes. The whole package- him, who he knew, where his stuff was hanging- I felt like it set me apart. 

Not at first, but then, one day, I went to the train terminal alone and I decided I was going to look at it. Really look at it. 

The terminal was a very busy place, all the time and especially at four in the afternoon. But I planted myself in front of it, and in that rush of people no one knocked me down. They accommodated me. I made them move. Just by being there. And I thought about that, and about what that mural really meant. 

Steve Douglass, a name I’m sure you know, because… well, because you met him. He’d commissioned it during the garbage strike, when it should have been an obscenity to throw public money at something like a mural. That was always a win for him, and not too long after that the national guard had come in, and the soldiers had picked up garbage for two months. 

I started going back to look at it. It was the signing of the Magna Carta. The king and a handful of nobles hating each other across a big table, with a single kid there, fetching wine. 

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NARRATOR: I’d posed for that photograph for so fucking long. They’d put me in the outfit, positioned me. My dad’s assistant, Eli, which is a little on the Jewish side for your granddad. I’ve always wondered how he happened. But whatever… he’d push my elbow up two inches, or move me a half a foot closer to the camera. I wanted to do a good job so badly. 

After that there were a few months of work for your grandad and he was a bastard, and then it was done. 

The unveiling was a big thing, with all kinds of minor royalty there. Councilmen, state reps, and the like, all of them drinking hard. When I was a kid I didn’t realize that adults were ever sober, and someone being aggressive and obnoxious was just normal. If somebody was polite I wondered what the fuck was wrong with them. I still do. 

I remember Douglass coming up to me. Your grandma was right there with me. He’d crouched down and put a hand on my back, rubbed it in circles, and he told me that I’d be a great man someday. Grandma smiled and agreed. If I ever doubted it, he said to just come back here and take a look. 

Your grandpa blew up after this. He knew the guys with the purse strings for this kind of thing, and he did stuff that looked like Rockwell, but with a sense of history. After a while they were sucking up to him, and I could see that he liked it. 

I was always in the murals, and that got to be very important to me. There I was at all the pivotal moments. I was there at the Declaration of Independence. I shouldn’t have been, and you can barely see me, but I was there. And at the Louisiana Purchase. Plymouth Rock. Just before I graduated high school I was a silhouette against a setting sun during World War I. 

I’m not sure if I was a stupid kid. Maybe. Or maybe not. I knew that fitting in was important, and I’d been posing for these photos for the murals for my whole life. I didn’t know if I was myself at all. 

It didn’t make me any happier. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, knowing I was going to die. I went to my mother the first time it happened and she followed me back to my bed, sat there and put her hand on my chest. Gently. Not pushing. And the next day my father put a hand on my shoulder, squeezed as hard as he could, and told me that it was NOT a thing I was allowed to be scared of. I kept waking up. I just dealt with it. 

Your grandma was there, sometimes, for a few minutes, but mostly she was custodial. I didn’t think she hated me, I don’t think she loved me. I don’t know if those were things that mattered to her. Maybe she wasn’t allowed to love or hate things. 

I was a few months away from going to college when he was commissioned for the statehouse mural, and I was along for the photo. It was late July and so hot, and of course we were wearing wool. It itched, and I was praying that the shoot would end quickly. There was a man, maybe in his 50’s, and I don’t remember his name. He was supposed to be Franklin, so… you know, he looked like Benjamin Franklin. Halfway through he collapsed. Heart attack. We watched him die there on the floor, wrapped up in damp wool. In that car that night I asked your grandad why he used me as a model. He was quiet for maybe a minute, which is a long time if you’re waiting for someone to answer a question that simple. Then he said that I made for an alright story. Then he asked me if I knew how important a man Douglass was, and if I knew that he’d painted him. 

I did, and I said so. 

It was his first big job, another mural of the founders. He blew a raspberry then, like he didn’t care, or that he thought it was all below him. Your granddad was similar. He was there, but most of the time that was all I could say about him. But then a new project would be in the works and he’d be… not panicked. Manic. I think, if he were around now he’d be diagnosed as bipolar, along with being an alcoholic. 

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NARRATOR: Douglass had posed as Washington. They wanted a young, virile Washington. Then he was quiet for another weird length of time. Too long. And then he said that Douglass wouldn’t have made it otherwise. He wouldn’t have believed in himself. And that Douglass had told him that he’d always owe him for that. 

I didn’t say anything, but I believed him. Douglass was history. He was special. 

He hadn’t thought it up himself. And Douglass had told him that he should paint me in, so I’d know that I was destined for greatness.

After that I sharpened. I started being an ‘eyes on the prize’ guy, and started to notice people who were emulated. Who did they follow. Who followed them. And I let people know that it was me on all those walls. That worry, about death and nothing having meaning, I started to think about fate.

So it was an obvious thing that Douglass was in my life. In your life, too. I was an intern first. Intern sounds like a joke, but you did it, and you were fucking good. People think doing social media is a joke, but if you’re on the inside you know its not. Everyone thinks it’s a joke when it’s a war. 

He was one of the first real culture warriors and he was also very fucking good. He’s drop easy soundbites on the plebes, and they’d blow them up in bars after work. 

Back before his eyes turned yellow, that thing happened with the mural at the statehouse. There were little figures in the background. Maybe slaves, but too far off to tell. But, yeah, they were slaves. I didn’t ask my dad about it. Didn’t have to. He was yelling about it at home, throwing glasses. I’d moved out, but your grandmother called… this was about a year before she died. She was scared. I just listened on the other end of the line. I didn’t talk to him. I just listened. 

So it was a big deal, the mural. No overseer, no whip, no children pulled from their parents to be sold away, but the argument I floated went, so what? It was history, not shameful, just a fact. 

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NARRATOR: I was happy to be doing it, and it was a ticket to ride. People would see that I was slick. And for me it didn’t matter if it worked or not. If it stayed up it stayed up. If it came down it was a chance to play victim. Even better, let some gay Haitian immigrant throw something up in its place. 

And it was coming down. I went around to Douglass’ office, to gloat. I knocked. No answer. I knocked again. You know the lesson here. If I opened the door and he was on top of an intern, blackmail, and if he was having a heart attack, gratitude. 

But neither thing was happening. He was just sitting, quiet, drinking and looking defeated. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know anything about defeat. 

I stood there for a moment. I was so uncomfortable. I was a toady, I know that, and the toady’s job is to never shut up. Then he nodded toward a chair, and for the first time I had absolutely no idea what to do with my hands. I was gesturing all the time back then. I wasn’t used to not doing anything with them. 

He asked me what was happening. With the mural. I didn’t think he’d care. I told him it was coming down. He nodded, then asked me if your granddad was dead. And he wasn’t yet, not for a few months. Then he asked me if I knew that it was him in the mural. 

Then he laughed, and said, “Me, in a stupid wig, in the middle of Summer.” His own dad had gotten the ball rolling on it, before his first campaign by a couple of years. He remembered how hot it was. He said his dad had told him that it was a shot at immortality. Everyone who passed it would look up, and see a great man. They’d confuse him for Washington. 

And of course, because of what a little snake I was, I told him that he was a great man, but he wasn’t having it. 

That was it for him, is what he said. That had been his big thing, what he’d thought about when he couldn’t sleep at night. He said he could feel it. The fight. There wasn’t any left. Then he told me to get out. 

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NARRATOR: I kept going. I loved it. People hanging on the dumbest shit you say in your worst moment is amazing. You’re not going to get a chance to know what that feels like, with the decisions you’ve made. 

After that I did what you do when you want to climb. Powerful people aren’t single because weak people generally aren’t, and you need them to identify with you. Your mother and I both had our sights set on big things, so each of us married the kind of person that an imbecile would want to marry, and we both ended up feeling pretty stupid about our choices in the end. And we had you. That’s another thing that you do when you want to make yourself relatable. I’m sure you knew that we didn’t want you, and I’m sorry. Really. And I’m sorry for the schools. I’m sorry for pushing you into the army. I didn’t even let you opt for the air force. I remember when I told you that it was for pussies. And I’m sorry for naming you Blaze. That’s such a stupid fucking name. 

But it all worked. I did climb. Everything I did mattered, and I don’t think I worried about a single thing until the cops killed that guy in Aston. 

I tried to keep my philosophy right up front: Every problem was an opportunity. It would be just like that garbage strike. An unruly protest would give me a chance to look strong. Bring the national guard in, express regret and resolve, and be the dignified, solid leader that I wanted to be. And that stuff is like a superhero movie when you watch it on TV. Tons of powerless enemies getting swatted. It looks cool. And exciting. 

And they breached the statehouse. That’s part of the dance. You wait until it’s a big deal. You let your enemies be cautious, pretend they’ve actually held you back, and spring into action when your constituency is frustrated. Are you listening to these messages? There are a lot of excellent life lessons here. 

Anyway… they tagged up the mural. Just buried it under spraypaint. Right about when I made the calls to send in the guard. And just then, phone to my ear, I felt it. Even if you’ve never had a heart attack, which you never will, it’s very obvious what’s happening. No mistaking it. 

There were doctors after that. You remember. You were a good son, however good a reason you had not to be. But yeah, an arrhythmia. These things happen. And it makes people identify with you, to look mortal all of a sudden. 

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NARRATOR: And things didn’t go down the way they were supposed to. There were days of protest after that. The interstate blocked, freight lines too, and there are always opportunists, younger people happy to say what they’d have done in my position. That was when I got scared. Maybe I’d gone as far as I could. Maybe it was all downhill from there. I hung on after that, but it was harder than it should have been. 

But I did hang on. I was owed a lot of favors and I knew where some bodies were buried.  

The state universities were a place to go to football games and shit all over everything else. I was pissed off that you didn’t go out for football, but you wouldn’t have made it. And maybe that’s for the best. Being mediocre in the army is something to brag about. Being mediocre on a team is a reason for people to hate you. But, you know how it is… go to the games and root for the team and shit all over the rest of it. There’s not five minutes of a women’s studies class that a Fox News anchor can’t parlay into five days of being pissed off. 

That whole ‘monuments’ thing was a godsend. Because no one who matters gives a shit, and all you have to do to benefit from one of them coming down is pretend to care for about two minutes. So when the Andrew Jackson statue got splashed with red paint, and another of my dad’s murals was maybe going to come down, I took my heart medicine and got red in the face. 

It was another Jackson thing, and of course I was there, watching him sign something. What a stupid painting. I didn’t care at all. I would have preferred it if some Africana Studies student had shit on it in front of a camera, but they just painted over it. And when they did I got the call about you. 

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NARRATOR: For a few minutes I was so mad at you. Couldn’t you have been shot somewhere overseas? You would have been a hero, and I would have been a hero too. There are people who’ll be sympathetic to the parents of a suicide, but that was defintely not my target demographic. I looked at my aid, in that first, maybe 30 seconds, and I actually said “This looks so bad.” 

Then I remembered when the photo for that mural had been taken. It had been such a long day. And I was so young. The air had been stale, and my neck was itchy. More fucking wool, of course. I’d had to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t want to push past everyone, and I was little. I was embarrassed. I could smell the other men, and that thing, it has to be universal, where you smell something terrible and you wonder who it’s coming from, and you’re worried that other people are thinking it was you. I was scared to make everyone stop. I was always afraid of making your grandad angry. I don’t think he loved me. I certainly didn’t then. But I thought I might have been getting close. 

After that… the only people cruel enough to attack the father of a suicide were allies of mine. And I did try to play off of it, tastefully. But I think everyone knew that I was a failure at that point. No one said it so I couldn’t deny it, but that was what it was.  

I was hoping that people would think of me as an old war horse. That’s how I wanted to think of myself. I let the gray hair come in, tried to make my eyes and mouth agree with all the lines I’d started to see in the mirror. I’d fit right in with the other old timers, trade hard truths while shooting skeet and drinking whiskey at the hunting lodge. I’d always gone to church anyway. It’s a job responsibility. 

But the shine was off. Of everything. Your mother and I cared for each other for about a year and a half. Long enough for her to get pregnant and you to be born. Neither of us cheated in an obvious way. But after you did what you did, there wasn’t even a sense of keeping up appearances. I was drinking. A lot. And she’d found someone to convince her that she was loved. I didn’t care. 

I wrote a book. Or someone wrote a book, and a publisher put my name on it. That’s the end of every political life, writing something that people can pick up from a pile in Costco. Then it’s a best-seller. I don’t think anyone reads any of it. I was waiting to spend four minutes on a friendly prime-time news show. Getting ready to be glad-handed. I was fucking around on my phone. I had news alerts set up for my dad’s name, and it pinged. He’d done a parallel of that statue that Haymarket statue that the Weathermen blew up, at a train terminal in Boston, and, of course, I was in the mural. 

I’d been so young when I’d posed for it, and I’d felt so embarrassed when that one had been taken. It was on a public street, and I’d been the center of attention. I didn’t feel like I deserved that, and in two ways. One, I felt subjected to it. All those eyes on me felt like an affliction. It was a punishment. And also, I felt that there was some sort of statement about me, like, that I was special. And I didn’t think I was. And I didn’t want anyone else to think that I thought that. I was in the way, and I was in everyone’s face, and I didn’t like it. 

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NARRATOR: After the segment I went home, and I was settling into my chair, and someone knocked on the door. Not in the way that important people’s doors are supposed to get knocked on. I liked people to knock like they were apologizing for something. There were flashlights outside and too many cars. I’d done so much quid pro quo up to that point that it could have been a thousand things. I called Joe Baldi, the lawyer… maybe you remember him. And then I opened the door. 

I spent the night in a federal holding cell. I think it would have been alright if I could have had a drink. I was scared to leave the arraignment. I’d been called shameless before, and I think I was, other than those times when I was a child, posing. I’d forgotten what being scared feels like. I looked at the footage. I look old and confused. And I came around to a fact. I was a terrible father. What a boring way to fail. And so cheap, that I figured it out so late. 

It’s been a bad month. I watch the news. There’s another mural coming down. The christening of the Enola Gay. I see that it’s schlock. It was the first one, taken when I was six. I don’t have the picture, but I’ve looked at the painting. I’m in the foreground, running with my arms out, supposed to be looking like I’m flying. I’m smiling, but when I look at it on the computer, I don’t think that little boy looks happy. I’m not sure what’s happening for him, but he’s not happy. Right before the shot I’d asked my father what the picture was for, and he’d told me about the bomb, and then he’d said, “Go smile”. 

I don’t know what I’ll figure out when this one gets painted over. I feel like I get it. I don’t think there’s anything after this, and I don’t really think you’re there, or that you can hear this, or that I’ll ever see you again. And I’m sorry. And I hope you can hear it. But I don’t think you can. 

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